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Meet the new Tom Gallagher

Published Aug. 25, 2005

In Tom Gallagher's campaign for governor, here's what's in: family.

"We have to have strong families, because strong families build the leaders of tomorrow," Florida's chief financial officer told contributors at a South Florida fundraising reception. "Strong families help us keep the cost of government down. Now the one thing government can't do is provide love, and families do that. So it's important we do everything we can to keep families strong."

Here's what's out: the pesky M-word that's clung to Gallagher like a bad rash over three decades in Republican politics.

"I've never described myself as a moderate," Gallagher snapped when asked about his longstanding image. "If somebody wants to call me a social conservative, I'm happy with that."

Tom Gallagher, social conservative?

This is the once-legendary playboy who used to describe himself as "prochoice?" The candidate who used to oppose school vouchers and school prayer? Who made his name in the Legislature making sure government helped provide insurance to hundreds of thousands of children? Who supported banning assault weapons and tracking all gun sales by serial numbers?

Political strategists used to say Gallagher was a great general election candidate, but too moderate to win competitive Republican primaries dominated by conservative activists. He ran for governor in 1982, 1986 and 1994, and each time fell far short.

Now there's a new Tom Gallagher making his fourth run for governor. This one wants Roe vs. Wade overturned, cheered on legislators as they tried to force the insertion of a feeding tube into Terri Schiavo, favors a constitutional ban on gay marriage and denounces "activist judges."

"It's a Tom Gallagher who's certainly got more gray hair than he had before," Gallagher said the other day when asked about his evolution.

"I've learned through a lot of experiences I've had both in government and out. I'm married _ a guy with a child. Sure, I'm different. You automatically become different when you become married and have a child."

Whether people conclude that it's a sincere evolution or a cynical repackaging will help decide whether Gallagher, 61, finally grasps the top rung of Florida politics that has eluded him.

As a legislator, state education commissioner, state insurance commissioner and now as chief financial officer, Gallagher earned a reputation as one of the most knowledgeble and hands-on leaders in state government. Admirers see a leader willing and able to tackle the most complex issues facing Florida and perhaps the most qualified gubernatorial candidate in modern history.

He's also earned his stripes as a GOP loyalist. In 2000, he bowed to the entreaties of Republican leaders worried about a divisive primary for U.S. Senate and ran for insurance commissioner instead. To this day, many Republicans are convinced Gallagher would have beaten Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson if he had been the GOP nominee instead of Bill McCollum.

"He's done a lot for the party, and it's time for the party to be there for him. It's Tom Gallagher's time," said Andreina Dielingen Figueroa, a Miami lobbyist.

But right now, 14 months from what is sure to be the most expensive Republican primary in Florida history, the early buzz is that it's Charlie Crist's time.

Most polls show the Republican attorney general comfortably ahead of Gallagher. Gallagher's allies haved long whispered that Crist would be crushed by Gallagher's fundraising network and his top-notch campaign team. Gallagher reported Friday raising more than $3-million in 43 days. But early signs point to competitive fundraising by Crist.

J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich _ a lobbyist, Crist supporter and former Jeb Bush campaign strategist _ cited Gallagher's history of losing GOP primaries where he was viewed as too moderate for the Republican base. He needs a big financial advantage over Crist to overcome his image as a liberal or moderate Republican and the attorney general's ability to generate proconsumer publicity.

"Gallagher loses unless he has the resources to totally reinvent himself," said Stipanovich.

So far Crist and his handful of mostly little-known campaign aides are out-hustling Gallagher's team of top-tier campaign consultants in generating positive early headlines and perception.

Case in point, Gallagher's backers have long maintained he has more substance and depth than Crist. But this was called into question last week when Gallagher's startled campaign staff found itself having to brush off Crist's calls for a dozen "Lincoln-Douglas style" policy debates in the Republican primary.

The similarities to his last campaign for governor in 1994 are uncanny. In that race, Gallagher kept dismissing the relevance of his being a lifelong bachelor, promising to disprove the Florida political axiom that someone who's single can't win a statewide race.

"Yeah, and guess what? Did you see me get elected?" Gallagher chuckled when asked about his dismissing the significance of family status on a statewide campaign.

In 1998 Gallagher married Laura Wilson, a telecommunications lawyer. They have a 6-year-old son, Charley, whom Gallagher never fails to mention on the campaign trail.

"The influence of Laura on his life and his values has been incredible," said Republican state Rep. Dennis Baxley, an avid Gallagher supporter from Ocala and a leader in the battle to keep Terri Schiavo alive. "Everything shifted as he developed the family life."

Crist is the bachelor candidate this time. Just like Gallagher used to, he brushes off the suggestion that only a married parent is qualified for governor.

"The poll numbers indicate it's completely inaccurate. Somebody with a compassionate heart can relate to the people of Florida," the divorced Crist said, summarizing the choice for Republicans his own way: "consistency . . . My rhetoric matches my record."

As Gallagher strives to win the advantage in the Republican primary, however, even some of his supporters haven't quite caught on to the new Gallagher message. "In the general election, Tom's got a very good chance of getting South Florida Democratic votes because he's a moderate," noted J. Patrick Michaels, a Tampa businessman and Republican fundraiser who's been a friend and ally of Gallagher's for more than two decades.

Told that Gallagher was campaigning as a staunch conservative who, unlike Crist, strongly backed lawmakers intervening to try to keep Terri Schiavo alive, Michaels was taken aback.

"I'm surprised to hear that," Michaels said in a phone interview from Spain. "I talked to him early on and he told me he wasn't going to get involved in that."

Unlike the little-known Democratic candidates for governor, both Republicans are statewide officeholders with their own platforms for generating publicity. But the attorney general can tout anticrime initiatives and efforts to help consumers, while Gallagher's office is more often associated with insurance, an industry often reviled and one over which he has limited control.

Last week, he denounced Allstate's plans to raise its rates dramatically. At least one critic, Orlando lawyer John Morgan, scoffed that Gallagher attacked Allstate even though one of its top lobbyists, former state GOP chairman Al Cardenas, is one of the leaders of his campaign.

Determined to shed his moderate image, Gallagher hopes what voters see in him this time is a sincere and staunchly conservative family man.

"I'm not anywhere that I'm not comfortable, I'll tell you that," he said of the new image.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adamsptimes.com.

TOM GALLAGHER

PERSONAL: Born Feb. 3, 1944, in Wilmington, Del. Moved to Florida in 1961. Married to Laura Gallagher; one son. Lives in Tallahassee.

EDUCATION: B.A., business administration, University of Miami, 1965.

EXPERIENCE: State House of Representatives, 1974-1986; treasurer-insurance commissioner, 1988-1994 and 2000-02; education commissioner, 1998-2000; candidate for governor, 1982, 1986, 1994; elected chief financial officer, 2002.

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